Q and A: City council candidates discuss utility rates

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St. Albert’s preliminary report on its budget position projected a utility rate increase of 2.1 per cent for 2018.

The Gazette asked candidates for their thoughts on this potential increase. Councillor candidates had a 75-word limit while mayoral candidates had a 150-word limit.

Aside from the candidates listed here, Jacy Eberlein and Ufuoma Odebala-Fregene are also running for council but did not provide a response.

Q: If elected, how would you respond to the proposed 2.1 per cent increase?

A: Cathy Heron, St. Albert Mayoral Candidate
Utility model can be improved further by looking at how we charge for stormwater and I would also like to approach the supplementary capital contribution to change it to a fairer model based on use and not a flat rate for everyone. Any surplus generated within the utility model needs to be returned to the capital contributions for utilities. We need to have a hard look at what capital projects are in the 10 year rolling plan to determine if they are necessary and are there other ways to fund them. I am not in favour of subsiding utilities with provincial grants as we have a capital deficit and that grant money is needed to fix roads, sidewalks etc. if we use this money for utilities taxes will go up.

A: Cam MacKay, St. Albert Mayoral Candidate
Traditionally St. Albert had low utility rates because we used to allocate 30 per cent of our MSI grant to utilities to repair and maintain water infrastructure. The current council changed this policy and redirected this grant to the capital budget. While on council I opposed this redirection of grant funds and I don’t feel that these funds have been well spent in the capital budget as they provided funding to projects like the downtown roundabout. If we redirect MSI funds back to the utility model we can ensure that these funds are spent on needed water infrastructure such as water pipes and sewer mains. Also by reallocating the MSI grant back to the utility model we can reduce our water utility rates by 10 per cent (which would offset the 2.1 per cent increase) and ensure that our provincial MSI grant money is spent on required water infrastructure rather than more discretionary projects.

A: Malcolm Parker, St. Albert Mayoral Candidate
An increase of 2.1 per cent is in effect a tax increase. Council needs to take another look at the supplement capital contributions added to utility bills and explain why planning for the future replacement of infrastructure utilities does not provide adequate reserves. Taxpayers are concerned they are paying for future services they will not use and if the reserves are insufficient when the infrastructure is scheduled for replacement then funds would be borrowed at that time. Planning future contingencies is a fundamental business principle that needs to be done. The MSI funding should be used for utilities and not discretionary projects and the city needs to meet with its service provider to negotiate fair and equitable water rates. These steps will result in minimizing utility rate increases.

A: Sandyne Beach-McCutcheon, St. Albert Council Candidate
Utility rates have been mentioned several times at the doors. Residents are disappointed, as they feel they’ve done all they can to minimize water usage, etc. Recognizing that this is a preliminary report, I would want to explore options that could reduce this figure.

A: Al Bohachyk, St. Albert Council Candidate
Taxpayers are exhausted. Utility rates, deceptively manipulated and excessive, are no less an expense for those paying the bills. Residents understand that services cost money, but they expect the city to apply the real cost and to be transparent. Hiding tax increases by raising utility rates isn’t fooling anyone. The city must reassign the MSI funding to protect exorbitant utility rates. Only then can a full examination of true expenses satisfy increased rates.

A: Wes Brodhead, St. Albert Council Candidate
The projected utility rate increase for 2018 is preliminary. There are opportunities to minimize this increase by examining the rate calculation model, particularly in relation to the storm water management cost. The city is currently reviewing introducing a “impermeable surface” element which would see large users of the storm water management system pay a specific user rate. This would redistribute the cost of the utility system to more accurately reflect a “user pay” model.

A: Jan Butler, St. Albert Council Candidate
The 2017 rate was reduced by 2.6 per cent from 2016.  My understanding is that the 2.1 per cent increase for 2018 is to maintain existing services.  If elected, I would work with my council colleagues to challenge all the services within our utility rates.  We must look at some of the capital and see what is discretionary or can be delayed so that the 2.1 per cent may be reduced to match the consumer price index of 1.01 per cent.

A: Craig Cameron, St. Albert Council Candidate
I believe that council must provide good value for the money it collects and clear rationale for the rates it sets. The projected utility rate reflects administration’s efforts to address historic council priorities. When elected, I will work with the new council to review the strategic priorities. I will also work with administration to ensure that rates reflect strategic, effective and efficient investments in utility infrastructure repair, maintenance and investment.

A: Gilbert Cantin, St. Albert Council Candidate
Council and the city management need to start looking at their operations and make it more efficient so we do not just raise taxes as solution. In private industry where I always worked, we find efficiencies all the time by thinking outside the box. Getting more budget is not a solution in private industry and I intend to implement this kind of thinking at city hall.

A: Mark Cassidy, St. Albert Council Candidate
Utilities should have MSI moved back toward utility future infrastructure which is $5 million back into our utility infrastructure. This is a government grant for sustaining our long-term infrastructure; instead, this grant went toward paying for the road-to-nowhere roundabout for $4 million, so it was basically wasted and utilities increased 20 per cent. Let’s put everything into perspective which will lead to less deceptive, misleading practices to lead people to believe taxes have been low but wait utilities have been skyrocketing.

A: Jacquie Hansen, St. Albert Council Candidate
The preliminary report on the utility rate increase is just that: preliminary. The new council will need to unpack this report with city staff, consider the facts and discuss the impact for St. Albert residents as well as the impact for maintaining infrastructure.

A: Sheena Hughes, St. Albert Council Candidate
In 2015, council increased your utility rates substantially and unnecessarily with a hidden tax increase on your water bill. I stood up for residents and argued against this increase in 2015 and every year since. I will continue to take action to reverse this hidden tax and restore proper provincial funding back into the utility model to save families approximately $150 per year on their water bills.

A: Charlene Jelinski, St. Albert Council Candidate
The number one concern I have heard from residents is the rising cost to living in St.Albert. A 2.1 per cent utility rate increase will contribute to the compound effect of other projects and tax increases caused by other means.
At this point, I am not sure what the solution would be but I would like to work with council to explore all options including the possibility of restoring MSI funding.

A: Natalie Joly, St. Albert Council Candidate
We must consider every line item in the budget carefully, including utilities, to minimize increases, and maximize long-term stability. Community needs must be balanced with financial strains. Thankfully, we have healthy reserves, build costs are lower right now, and St. Albert has one of the lowest debt-per-capita ratios in Alberta. Council must review and debate our budget thoroughly to strike the right balance, to ensure that we minimize all increases while protecting and growing our infrastructure.

A: Shayne Kawalilak, St. Albert Council Candidate
I would fight utility rate increases tooth and nail by going through every project and department to make sure we have allocated our fiscal responsibility with good management and common sense. My website showed that we were irresponsible with over $5.6 million in the last few years. I would like to stop any more of this before it is spent and be more responsible with the taxes we collect. Some of our community are on fixed incomes and cannot handle the constant increases.

A: Mark Kay, St. Albert Council Candidate
Utility rates are a sore spot for many residents. Another 2.1 per cent increase would be hard for residents to swallow without specific reasoning as to why they are going up. I would look at why this increase is needed, and if it’s possible we could reduce this increase. A two per cent rise in any fees warrant a closer examination by the new council.

A: Ken MacKay, St. Albert Council Candidate
The proposed rate increase is a very preliminary estimate of the cost to deliver current services and provide sufficient funding for long-term infrastructure management. The proposed stormwater utility rate changes will reduce fees for most residents and businesses, but I recognize the significant impact that it will have for other businesses. At this time I would look for opportunities for savings by possibly spreading out maintenance and growth over a longer period of time.

A: Nestor Petriw, St. Albert Council Candidate
St. Albert’s official website states that average monthly utility rates (waste/water/sewer) were reduced by 3.6 per cent between 2016 and 2017 ($147.93 v. $144.07). An increase of 2.1 per cent would make it $147.10, 0.5 per cent less than in 2016. The administration should be consulted on how to continue that trend.

A: Hannes Rudolph, St. Albert Council Candidate
Council needs to strive for affordable utility rates and also ensure that our service levels are not negatively affected.
We need to be mindful of upcoming projects identified to repair, maintain, and replace utilities infrastructure in St. Albert. With the upcoming budget season in mind, council needs to review the financials and see where adjustments can be made so these utility projects receive the necessary funding to move forward.

A: Bob Russell, St. Albert Council Candidate
I do not support increased surcharges on every item on our utility bill as this revenue is transferred to reserve accounts which often become “piggy banks” which administration and some members of council want to use for special unjustifiable projects.

A: Steve Stone, St. Albert Council Candidate
There is absolutely no way I would consider any increase on our already excessively high utility rate. I believe with responsible accountability we can reduce the rates by two percent each year over the next four years and still deliver the same level of service. An auditor will go a long way in accomplishing this goal. We simply have to get serious about responsible governance and stewardship of our taxpayers funds.

A: Tash Taylor, St. Albert Council Candidate
For the sake of ratepayers, we must keep these increases to a reasonable minimum. While 2.1 per cent is not outrageous, it still troubles me to a degree as this is only one of many household expenses for our residents. Rather than re-opening the utility rate model debate, I believe if we update some of our engineering standards, the cost to maintain our utility infrastructure could be reduced, and help level utility rate increases.

A: Jaye Walter, St. Albert Council Candidate
I support restoring the provincial MSI grant back to utility projects to reduce utility rates by 10 per cent. I will ensure that this grant money is spent on water and sewer infrastructure instead of being spent on capital projects like the St. Anne Street roundabout and road re-alignment.

A: Ray Watkins, St. Albert Council Candidate
The 2.1 per cent estimate includes inflation and estimated population increases and was characterized as a starting point. I would review the inflation numbers and population estimates and drill down on the costs looking for potential areas of savings.

A: Leonard Wilkins, St. Albert Council Candidate
In the past year, many citizens have either not had a raise or have had employment challenges. As a candidate, I would like to minimize discretionary spending and hold the increase to as close to zero as possible.
My priority is to maintain services and necessary maintenance in a cost-effective manner. Additional maintenance and projects would be prioritized and completed as our budget allows.

A: Barry Zukewich, St. Albert Council Candidate
Our utility rates are a large concern. I would investigate the recommendation of a 2.1 per cent increase of the preliminary budget report as necessary. I am not a believer that exorbitant utility rates, user fees etc., should be an instrument to prop up operating income of city operations.

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April Hudson